Montana’s raw beauty and wide open spaces are inexorably joined to harsh conditions, like this past week’s -30 temperatures. Such dangerous weather means that neighbors sometimes have to work together just to survive, even when they have a history of past conflicts. Maybe this is why Montanans are well known for looking for the elusive “third way” in situations of conflict where compromise is born of pragmatism.
I can’t help but think of this analogy while attending the Blue Green Alliance Conference in DC this week, a conference where environmentalist and labor unions get together to talk about our common interests. As we work together, we seek to strike a balance between jobs and the environment.
Similarly, Montana’s natural resources – both the beauty of the land and the richness of the resources lying beneath it – have always presented Montanans with the challenge of balancing conservation with economics. Throughout Montana’s history, we have striven for the proper balance; enjoying that beauty without trampling it, and gaining access to the riches underneath without unduly disturbing the landscape that gives us our identity. That balance is our “third way,” where extremist positions take a back to seat to pragmatism.
For the most part, we’ve done a good job of striking that balance. Montana remains a clean and astoundingly beautiful place even as thousands of people go about the work of extracting minerals that benefit people across the U.S. and around the world. Today, part of that balancing act revolves around Montana’s massive coal reserves – the largest of any state, still mostly untapped and in growing demand by an energy-hungry world.
Coal’s abundance, reliability, and price stability are the qualities that have made it the most popular fuel for electricity generation over the past century, a key to providing reliable, affordable electricity to drive the economy. Even with natural gas production rising, the U.S. as a whole still gets about 40 percent of its power from coal. In Montana half our electricity comes from coal and nearly 10,000 jobs and entire counties the size of Rhode Island depend on the coal industry’s health.
Montanans’ futures are clouded today not by our state of the industry coal plants burning the cleanest coal on the planet, but by proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could decimate towns cultures and livelihoods by mandating carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies on coal generation facilities that are not yet commercially viable and that are illegal to mandate under existing law.
That unproven technology, according to some inflexible voices in the energy/environment discussion, is the only way to assure that coal burns cleanly enough to assure Americans can meet global carbon reduction goals. But obviously, no utility is going to adopt an unproven technology that can’t produce power at prices consumers can afford.
In Montana, those willing to compromise advocate a third way with coal and carbon reduction; aggressive incremental improvement built on proven and scalable clean coal technology. The fact is, coal today already burns far cleaner than it did just a few years ago. And technological advances – affordable and proven equipment and procedures – are under development that will take us to an era of even cleaner coal in the not-too-distant future.
Regulating coal into oblivion and tens of thousands of Montanans out of a job isn’t the right path for our nation’s energy future. Our “third way” keeps Montanans at work and affordable, clean, reliable coal-generated electricity in the mix. I’m attending the Blue Green Alliance conference this week with union workers, Native tribal members, and other like-minded Montanans to encourage that third way.
Coal can, and must be, integral to the long-term energy plans of the United States. And as the richest of all the coal states, Montana has a chance to once again leverage its mineral resources in a way that respects our love of the land. Montanans have the solution, and we encourage the nation and the EPA to follow.
John Roeber is president of the Montana State Building and Construction Trades Council.